As a first-timer at a Wagner opera (is this ‘losing my Waginity?) I wondered what was the thread that binds his audiences in such strong defence of his work, and whether I’d feel any different afterwards.

The first thing to note is how expert this particular Coliseum audience was at going to the theatre. Sociable until the lights went down then there was not a sound, or a cough, or a sweet wrapper, or a watch bleep … and that made it all the more pleasurable to respond to the breadth and brilliance of one of the most complex, yet accessible, pieces I’d ever seen.

First impression is that it’s different from the clowning and fripperies which so often attend Italian opera – no mistaken identities, bewigged countesses posing as their maids, or page boys jumping from windows … this is weightier and yet somehow also weightless stuff as it seems to spin in the air like the metaphoric meteor which is part of the austere and symbolic set by Raimund Bauer and coolly lit by Duane Schuler. We’re in a cleft of time and space which is beyond the earthly world and its moral judgements. If the Tardis were to appear downstage right, it would be entirely appropriate.

The plot has multiple themes of filial loyalty, knightly chivalry, and custody of a holy relic which could appeal to followers of Lord of the Rings or even Spamalot, but is made easy to follow by both a clear English libretto but also the crystal diction of all the singers. You almost don’t need the surtitles. But it’s the presence of Sir John Tomlinson as the high priest Gurnemanz who acts as a sort of anchorman for the production which really blows you away. His is a fine voice at the absolute peak of his virtuosity, and in one of the longest and most arduous roles in opera he takes you with him every step of his emotional journey, and with a performance of this quality you’re proud and privileged to be at his side.

Then there’s the orchestra – the music has brass and woodwind-rich warmth in the Germanic tradition, and conductor Mark Wigglesworth conjures a mystic, ethereal sound: when you can feel the forest and the hunting horns in the music but see the icily grey scene, the contrast is spine tingling.

With a cast of over a hundred, the scenes with the Knights are cleverly choreographed and the stage feels filled with their numerous but strangely introverted presence.

This really is an other-worldly experience, and one which despite the five hours’ running time just flies by.

Runs until 12th March 2011

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.